Edith Louisa Cavell was born in 1866 at the country rectory of Swardeston, near Norwich, of which parish her father, the Rev. Frederick Cavell, was rector for forty years. In that pleasant sunny house the little girl passed her early days in uneventful happiness, for Swardeston had few interests apart from the obscurities of its own rural retirement.
The rector, who was a kindly man at heart, but firm to the point of sternness where his duty was concerned, ruled his home with evangelical strictness. His daughter Edith was a thoughtful child; and her unfailing consideration for others and her concern for their welfare caused her to be beloved by everybody. But the child's innate gentleness was tinged with a sense of duty remarkable in one of her years, which characteristic was the undoubted outcome of her father's precept and example.
Edith Cavell's education was as thorough as her parents could contrive; and, apart from mere scholarship, her outlook was widened by being sent to a school at Brussels.
When the Rev. Frederick Cavell died, the family removed from Swardeston to Norwich, and Edith decided to adopt the profession of nursing the sick poor. To that end on September 3, 1895, she entered the London Hospital as a probationer, and remained in that great institution for nearly five years. From the first, by her unselfish devotion to duty she endeared herself to her colleagues and patients alike. Part of the time she was staff nurse in the 'Mellish' Ward; and when the authorities sent her to Maidstone at the great outbreak of typhoid in that town, she did excellent work.
Later, Miss Cavell was appointed to the post of night superintendent at St. Pancras Infirmary, where she remained for three years; then she migrated to Shoreditch Infirmary to act as assistant superintendent. As evidence of her more than ordinarily wide experience, it should be stated that for a time she worked at Fountain Hospital, Lower Tooting, under the Metropolitan Asylums Board; and for nine months she acted temporarily as matron of the Ashton New Road District Home, Manchester.
In all these varied spheres of activity Nurse Cavell proved herself not only a capable nurse, but she became a clever, painstaking teacher, able to illustrate her eloquent lectures by means of her own facile and useful diagrams. Many nurses acknowledge their indebtedness to her lucid teaching, and are proud to claim their one-time association with one whose devotion and energy made her an ornament of a noble profession.
The sense of duty, which in the child was indicated so plainly, in after years developed into almost a religion. Every one with whom Miss Cavell came in contact speedily understood that she placed duty before either friendship or personal comfort. Her hospital training had taught her the value of discipline, and she would never tolerate inefficiency, or any tendency towards slackness, in her subordinates. As a surgical nurse her skill was remarkable; but her undoubted forte was the power of organization, which is almost rare compared to mere cleverness in the technical details of nursing.
Her absorption in her calling and her outwardly stern and reserved demeanour sometimes caused Nurse Cavell to be misunderstood; but those who were fortunate enough to serve under her quickly came to learn to admire her, equally as a nurse and a kind woman. Her expressive eyes were an index to her overflowing sympathy; and her fellow nurses found themselves impelled to take their troubles and difficulties to her, sure of a patient hearing and tactful and sympathetic advice.
In 1906 Miss Cavell was offered and accepted the position of matron of a surgical and medical home in Brussels, which had been founded by Monsieur de Page. This enlightened and enthusiastic Belgian doctor was impressed by the need of a better knowledge of hygiene and aseptic methods, of which through no fault of their own the nursing sisters in Belgium were generally ignorant.
Nurse Cavell's new post was one that called for the utmost discretion, for she was an Englishwoman and a Protestant, engaging in work which hitherto was practically a monopoly of the Roman Catholic religious sisterhood. But even inborn prejudice, and in some cases positive enmity, could not long hold out against Miss Cavell's professional skill, backed up by her charm of manner; and in quite a short time she was as popular with the Belgian staff and patients as had always proved to be the case in her English experience.
The establishment of a training school for nurses was a bold experiment, for Belgian women of good birth and education were accustomed to look upon earning their own living as a loss of caste.
The English nurse was fully aware of the difficulties with which she had to contend, and resolutely set herself to combat them. Soon she had five pupils, who commenced their work on recognized lines. Their uniform consisted of blue cotton dresses, high white aprons with white linen sleeves to cover the forearm, which was bare beneath, 'Sister Dora' caps without strings, and white collars. 'The contrast,' wrote Miss Cavell to the Nursing Mirror, 'the probationers present to the nuns in their heavy stuff robes, and the lay nurses in their grimy apparel, is the contrast of the unhygienic past with the enlightened present. These Belgian probationers in three years' time will look back on the first days of trial with wonder.'
By April, 1908, the probationers had increased to thirteen; and by 1912 the number was thirty-two. Some of the members of the staff were English nurses who had worked in the London Hospital or the Shoreditch Infirmary. They not only assisted in training the probationers, but also attended the private patients in the Nursing Home which was attached to the school.
Miss Cavell's school met with the warm approval of the Queen of the Belgians, who was quick to realize the value of trained nursing in Brussels. When Queen Elizabeth broke her arm a few years ago she did not hesitate to have it attended to by the nurses at the Home. Her Majesty's action was an exceedingly valuable tribute to the institution and the Englishwoman at its head. It gave public opinion a lead that caused the School and Home to be viewed favourably, where, perhaps, hitherto the new departure had been deprecated, if only because it was considered to be an unnecessary rival of the nuns and lay nurses, who worked under religious vows.
The Queen came to hold a very sincere regard for Miss Cavell, and it is certain that the feeling was reciprocated. Little did the royal patient and the English nurse then imagine that within but a few short years they would figure together in adversity, in their respective spheres, as two of the most pathetic heroines in modern history.
Quiet and unassuming, yet determined and courageous, Nurse Cavell continued her good work, which was bound to have a marked effect on the future of the Belgian nursing profession. She herself declared that 'the spread of light and knowledge is bound to follow in years to come. The nurses will not only teach, as none others have the opportunity of doing, the laws of health and the prevention and healing of disease; they will show their countrywomen that education and position do not constitute a bar to an independent life; they are rather a good and solid foundation on which to build a career which demands the best and highest qualities that womanhood can offer.'
In acting as directress of three hospitals, Miss Cavell found full scope even for her unusual organizing capabilities. In addition to her arduous lectures throughout the day, she gave four lectures to the doctors and two to the nurses every week. She always attended at the operating-theatre herself. One of her greatest pleasures was the children's ward, decorated in blue and white after her own design; she made a special point of visiting the little inmates every evening. The better class of Belgians paid for the services of the private staff of nurses, but the call of the poor never went unheeded.
Although Miss Cavell was intensely happy in her work in Brussels, she always looked forward with positive joy to visiting her aged mother, with whom she spent every possible holiday in England. In the summer of 1914 mother and daughter were enjoying one of these affectionate reunions.
Suddenly the great war-cloud burst. Edith Cavell was in her mother's garden weeding a bed of heartsease when she heard the news. She needed no heart-searching to decide where her duty lay; and, without hesitation, she returned hotfoot to Belgium, where she had an intuition that she would be wanted.